The first meaningless regular season game in the Henrik Lundqvist Era took place last night in D.C. Previously, the Rangers had never played a game in which the playoffs weren’t a possibility since ’05-06. So Game 76 of 82 was different.
In a rematch on Rivalry Night, they gave a better effort. Probably deserved to win. But you have to play till the final buzzer. That’s something rookie defenseman Neal Pionk learned in a tough 3-2 overtime defeat at Washington.
Ryan Spooner scored his first goal in nine games to put the Rangers ahead with 9:25 remaining in the third period. He finished off a nice pass from rookie Lias Andersson on a play started by Brady Skjei. For Andersson, it was his first NHL assist. In two games, he has a goal and a helper. Not a bad start for the active 2017 first round pick.
If the first two games are any indication, Andersson plays with the edge that’s been missing most of the season. He brings it during shifts not shying away from physicality and uses his speed well. It might be early for the 19-year old Swede but you have to like what we’ve seen so far.
Henrik Lundqvist was back in net after recovering from a injury on a collision last week. He was splendid throughout making acrobatic saves en route to 30 on Wednesday. Unfortunately, he’s still without a win since turning 36 on March 2. Even with nothing on the line, the veteran expressed frustration. He’s a competitor.
They were real close to getting him a victory until Lars Eller was left alone in front by Pionk for a easy put away with 65 seconds left. Pionk went down and was concerned with taking away the backdoor from Alexander Ovechkin. He admitted that he didn’t realize Jesper Fast had it covered. That allowed Nicklas Backstrom to thread the needle for Eller’s 18th.
He’ll learn. Pionk is a tremendous skater who’s proven he belongs. He had one great rush that forced Braden Holtby into a difficult save. He looks like he has the ability to become a 30-point defenseman in a full season. He still needs to get stronger. But Pionk has played well alongside Marc Staal. That wouldn’t be a bad second pairing in the rebuild assuming Staal stays. They work well off each other.
The two old Patrick Division rivals exchanged goals in a good first period. Kevin Hayes got a nice reward when he went to the net and was able to get a piece of a loose puck and bank it just over the goal line with help from Holtby. Originally, it was waved off but they horned downstairs stopping play immediately to overturn it. It was Hayes’ career best 22nd at 12:42 from Jimmy Vesey and Skjei on the power play. His fifth PPG despite not being used most of the year before the deadline sell off. The five on the power play are also a new high.
A Rob O’Gara slash on a Evgeny Kuznetsov breakaway was determined to be a penalty shot. On it, the dangerous Russian made a good move going for a deke and backhand but his try was read perfectly by Lundqvist, who robbed him with a great glove save to deny the chance.
The Caps struck back late in the period. Following a successful penalty kill of a Skjei slashing minor, the Rangers gave one up with 33 seconds remaining. Backstrom was able to move the puck across to a open Andre Burakovsky for a quick one-timer past Lundqvist. It ruined a very good period for the guests. They outshot the Caps 18-8 and largely outplayed them.
There was no scoring in the second. The two goalies did their job with Lundqvist making 13 stops and Holtby nine. There was a little bit of nastiness which I liked. What you expect from two rivals.
With the game still tied, Skjei made a good play in the neutral zone to start a nice passing play that Spooner finished from Andersson for his 12th. But after Holtby came off for a extra attacker, the Caps tied it on a good play down low with Kuznetsov working the puck to Backstrom, who did his magic with Eller forcing overtime.
Prior to the tying goal, Holtby wasn’t even off the ice when the extra attacker came on. The refs missed a obvious bench minor for too many men. It was so bad that they discussed the play after a whistle before a face off. That didn’t help the Rangers.
In the 3-on-3, Kuznetsov made a great solo effort by skating just around Mika Zibanejad to launch a good wrist shot that beat Lundqvist far side off the goalpost at 38 seconds of extras. It was a smart play by a very good player.
The Caps are closing in on another division title. They’ve pulled away from the Pens with 99 points and five games left. They lead Pittsburgh by seven. The Pens are battling Philadelphia and Columbus for second and home ice in the first round.
As for the Rangers, they can hold their heads high. They deserved better. Call it a valuable lesson. They will play their final home game tomorrow on Good Friday. It’ll be the return of Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller. It’s sure to be emotional with the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award being presented before puck drop.